'Million Dollar Listing' star Ryan Serhant started in real estate the day the market crashed — here's what he learned

Million Dollar Listing's Ryan Serhant.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Ryan Serhant knows how to stay positive in a crisis.

The star of the new Bravo series "Sell It Like Serhant" began his real estate career on one of the darkest days of the financial crisis: September 15, 2008. It was the day storied investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy amid the housing market collapse that led the country into a nearly two-year recession.

"In hindsight, it was the absolute best time for me to start," Serhant tells CNBC Make It about his first-ever real estate gig at New York firm Nest Seekers International, where he still works brokering multimillion-dollar deals.

"Brokers were abandoning the business left and right, and I was probably the only agent in my office — maybe the city — with a smile on my face. I was just excited to get started!" he remembers.

Serhant had moved to New York City two years earlier as an aspiring actor before deciding to get his real estate license.

"My last paying gig before starting as a real estate agent that fateful day was as a hand model, holding phones for AT&T," he says. "I took whatever gigs I could when I moved to [New York] to pay rent."

As it turned out, being a struggling actor was not so different from working in the real estate business during the financial crisis. Serhant tells CNBC Make It he made only $9,000 his first year as a real estate agent — less than he'd made the previous year from hand modeling and the odd acting gig.

"I kind of started from ground zero, in a really, really tough market, obviously, where a lot of people were losing their jobs, people couldn't get financing [to close real estate deals]," Serhant said of the period in an interview with Nasdaq in March. "So, all of my initial deals were really, really difficult."

Even though Serhant says he "mentally quit the business once per week" during the roughest stretches, the fact that he had struggled to make ends meet before actually helped him stay positive.

"I was just excited to have an office with a computer and a business card," Serhant jokes.

Serhant hustled to pick up any clients he could, even posting ads for his services on Craigslist. He also took the market collapse as an opportunity to learn new skills that tend to be overlooked in healthier financial markets.

"I learned everything that agents working in a boom market never have to involve themselves in," Serhant says. "I learned how to do loans; I learned the contract process in and out; I learned how to negotiate in dire circumstances; and I learned how to sell when nothing was selling."

$35 million Hamptons house is a summer playground
$35 million Hamptons house is a summer playground

Those skills helped Serhant gain a foothold in the real estate industry that he eventually grew into a massively successful business. Last year, his team at Nest Seekers ranked No. 5 in the United States in terms of sales volume with more than $600 million in transactions, according to real estate research company Real Trends.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 10 years later I would do [$100 million] in deals over spotty Wi-Fi while on safari in South Africa like I did last week," Serhant says of his rags-to-riches career arc.

In 2012, Bravo launched the reality series "Million Dollar Listing New York," with Serhant as one of its stars, and the cable network debuted its spin-off series focused solely on Serhant on April 11.

Serhant credits much of his career success to his early struggles.

"I don't think I would be where I am today had I not gone through that difficult period, and really learned the tools of the trade during the recession," he says.

However, when it comes to the advice Serhant would offer to anyone starting a career amid adverse conditions, the real estate agent cautions against following his lead too closely.

"First, don't do what I did. Don't start by yourself," he says. "That's a lonely place to be in."

Instead, Serhant advises seeking out successful individuals and teams in your industry to learn from. "Listen, learn, rinse, repeat," he says. "With time, you will be successful if you work hard."

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Disclosure: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal owns Bravo.